reviewing the review

Posted by Daniela Elza on Mar 11 2009

Getting Fresh: Two editors accomplish mission impossible by Hannah Main-van der Kamp is a “review” (of sorts) of Rocksalt Anthology in BC Bookworld.

Is it politically correct to review reviews? If it isn’t, please forgive my transgression.

Let me try an experiment: I am one of the poets in the anthology, and from BC, and not from the islands, and I do not have an MFA or creative writing degree. Ok, what can you tell about my poetry from this information?

It appears that is how we are supposed to experience the anthology from this review. It reads like the first stages of brainstorming for the task at hand: the first draft of meandering and wondering.

I will give it credit where it is due: it does make some valid points on the difficulty of putting anthologies together (what an impossible, but an admirable, task it is). Unfortunately, not enough to tell readers what they will find in Rocksalt. It dedicates space to noteworthy names that are not amongst its pages (my favorite of which are Bringhurst, Lilburn, and Zwicky).

The questions raised in the first few paragraphs about why some people are not in the anthology are answered toward the end of the review by no other than the reviewer herself, at which point she brainstorms a bunch of valid reasons for why someone may not be in the anthology.

Now who’s getting “fresh”? And do we need the quotes around “fresh”?

And the poems? Yes, the poems. I was surprised that not one of the 108 poems was mentioned. The poets in the anthology too remain invisible. Out of the 42 names mentioned (in bold) in this review only six of them actually appear in the anthology, two of which are the editors’.

That brings me to my burning question today: What does it mean when a reviewer spends the space and time of a review talking about what is not there, more than what is there?

Responding to an anthology such as Rocksalt deserves a bit more work. The reader deserves better, regardless of what book is being reviewed.

So for those who would like to read a review of Rocksalt I would suggest the review by Caroline Harvey in the current issue of the Vancouver Review. I think, so far, she has done the most comprehensive job of reviewing this, difficult to review, book. She points out what she perceives as shortcomings, but also elevates the vision which the anthology harbours, and the ground it breaks.

She mentions names of poets in the anthology (about 13 instances) and quotes from poems in the anthology or mentions them by the variety and breadth of their thematic scope (about 15-16 instances) as well as mentioned what grabbed her, and highlighted what she found worthy in the poetics statements (about 11 instances). There is care, and compassion, even in her criticism. I do not know if she submitted to the anthology. But she did take her responsibility as a reviewer to inform, enlighten, express opinion, and even entertains with carefully thought out and edited writing.

One should take care with writing a review as much as one takes care with writing a poem. A teacher and a reviewer/critic have a lot in common. They nurture young things to grow (literally and metaphorically). And as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book eat, pray, love, “this is why you come to a Guru: with the hope that the merits of your master will reveal your own hidden greatness.” I think we should aspire to more noble goals, and a more thorough job than what I see practiced in the critiquing world more often than I care to mention.

Since mentors were mentioned in the review as well, I would like to remind that we are mentors even when we are not paying attention. But that does not absolve one from the responsibility they have as teacher, editor, critic, reviewer, poet, even one who sells “fresh” chicken at the supermarket. It has to be done responsibly and with care. Please, let’s.

One Response to “reviewing the review”

  1. Strange Places » :introducing some chaos: Says:

    […] reviews of such books, it makes one think: What do we want of anthologies? Are we too vain? I wrote a review of such a review in an earlier post, myself quite grieved at the opportunity reviewers miss to actually look at what […]